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No reparations, just repatriation of prisoners

Published:Thursday | October 1, 2015 | 12:00 AMOrville Taylor, Contributor

When British Prime Minister David Cameron came bringing gifts last week, I was lining up to discuss reparations, the Privy Council, the ridiculousness of having a foreigner as our head of state, and the vexed issue of my right to British citizenship because I was born before Independence.

I had to give a small lesson in semantics to one of my media colleagues last Wednesday because he, like many others, confused the word 'reparation' with 'repatriation', the constant call of the Rastafari. They might sound similar, but there is a world of difference between the two. However, the British government is liable for both.

Repatriation is the relentless plea of the servants of JahJah because they have always kept an eye on Africa. It is simple: Millions of Africans were transported from the continent via the horrific triangular trade that enriched the British Empire. For those of us who survived, we arrived on an 'island', which is not 'I an I land'. For the Rastas, Africa is our home, and it is the obligation of the British government to return the descendants of the transported Africans to their ancestral homeland. And it doesn't matter if they use the Black Star Line or Her Majesty's vessels; as long as they don't remain in deep ship.

Indeed, unlike the ancient elders who rejected sailing in the 'iron fish', these Rastafarians will tolerate the journey in the company of seamen as long as they return home.

Reparation, on the other hand, is the quantifiable payment in cash or in kind for the suffering and economic loss the Africans suffered because of their enslavement. Reparation is not a new doctrine. In 1951, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion made a claim on West Germany for US$3,000 per person to the tune of US$1.5 billion for the survivors of the Holocaust. One will note that the Holocaust, which involved the systematic imprisonment, genocide and forced labour of Jews in the period 1938-44, was before the state of Israel was established in 1948.


Modern Israel

Even more interesting is that both the British and American governments agreed that the Jews, like the current dispossessed Bobo Shanti, without a nation-state of their own, be given a piece of land from the existing territory of their historical enemies, the Palestinians. Thus was born the modern Israeli state.

Nonetheless, when you are white, it's all right, and three billion Deutschmarks was paid over during a 14-year period. Moreover, some 450 million marks were paid to the stateless World Jewish Congress. Proceeds of the compensation were used by the new state of Israel to build the nation's infrastructure and were pivotal in setting the country on a solid economic path.

If we read Eric Williams' classic Capitalism and Slavery, or Walter Rodney's How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, the benefits that the British earned from Jamaican slave labour alone would be frightening. At one point, the tiny island of wood, black people, sugar and water contributed more than a tenth of Britain's economy, and it can be successfully argued that we essentially fuelled the Industrial Revolution which turned the United Kingdom into the global economic power that it became.

Yet, giving us a slightly chilly shoulder on the reparations issue, Cameron, a man who was caught smoking weed as a teenager, must fancy himself a bit of a Rastafarian and has offered us a sort of repatriation. However, it is in the form of part of the money to build a prison to accommodate guests of Her Majesty's penal system.

There is nothing novel about the offer. The British government had been pushing this 'deportation' of prisoners from Peter was the first Pope. In 2007, the Jamaican Government inked a deal with the Brits for the transfer of prisoners; however, up to last year, it had not been ratified. It had not been a benevolent deal.

The UK is lamenting that it spends more than £27 million to accommodate between 700 and 800 Jamaicans serving sentences and paragraphs in its prisons. Jamaicans are the third-largest group of foreigners occupying British prison cells. John Bull simply needs to save money.

True, there is an offer of £300 million in free money for overall infrastructure work, but the prison offer is a challenge. National Security Minister Peter Bunting is between a rock and a hard place. He has had to face constant criticisms from local and, ironically, British-based human-rights groups over the state of our police lock-ups and prisons.


Old prisons

Not only is there serious overcrowding for the approximately 4,000 inmates, but the pre-emancipation structures are perilous. The St Catherine institution was constructed in 1714 and the other at Tower Street is just as ancient. At present, there might be as much as a 2,000-space shortfall, and if there is a moderate earthquake or even a strong hurricane, the fall will be much shorter.

These two major prisons, laughingly called 'correctional facilities', could, based on their vulnerable infrastructure, literally lead to prison breaks. Indeed, to his credit, I believe that Bunting stood up against the Brits, who, if they had their own way, the 2,000-plus new spaces created by the new prison would have to swallow up the entire 800 Jamaicans as opposed to the 300 cap that has been agreed.

Yet, there is a bigger problem for me. Despite the revelation that the Brits are offering assistance on justice and prison reform, there are major kinks in their system. Blacks, constituting four per cent of the population, comprise almost 15 per cent of all police stops. And as inconvenient as it might be, global corruption watchdog Transparency International has revealed that in 2013, some 21 per cent of British residents reported bribing judges, compared to six per cent of Jamaicans. So, is there the possibility that many of the incarcerated are there because of biases in the British justice/penal system?

Thanks for the prison, mate, but can you guarantee my countrymen equal and fair treatment before you lock them up?

- Dr Orville Taylor, senior lecturer in sociology at the UWI and a radio talk-show host, is the 2013-14 winner of the Morris Cargill Award for Opinion Journalism. His just-published book, 'Broken Promises, Hearts and Pockets', is now available at the UWI Bookshop. Email feedback to and